Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Learning by writing the question

Following up on Mike's post about essay question formats: I like to experiment with small exercises designed to encourage metacognition. One I'm going to try this term is to have students write their own essay questions.

Students in my Moral Philosophy course are given a weekly essay assignment. I plan to put them in groups to brainstorm essay prompts, subject to these guidelines:

  • The prompt should relate to the week's assigned materials or topic(s). Outside research should not be required
  • It should require knowledge or understanding made available via the class (texts, in-class discussion, etc.).
  • The prompt should be answerable in 750 words or so.
  • It should require demonstration of skills at multiple levels of Bloom's taxonomy (left).

My aim is to winnow their ideas down to a few good examples and select one of these for the weekly prompt.

What's the learning value of such an exercise? First, and most obviously, it functions as a way to motivate students to review the week's material. Second, it gets them thinking about the prompt beforehand, so it comes as a bit less of a surprise.  Third, because the prompt results from collaboration among themselves and with me, students may feel a stronger sense of ownership with respect to the course. Lastly, by drawing attention to some of the higher levels in Bloom (apply, analyze, evaluate), students see that philosophical knowledge is not primarily propositional, but dispositional — it amounts to being able to do intellectually sophisticated things with information, not simply re-represent it. They may begin to see the contrast between deep and surface and learning. And it may well encourage students to study philosophy in the ways we've advocated here at ISW.

I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts both (a) about the benefits — and potential drawbacks — of such an exercise, and (b) how to maximize the learning value of exercises like this.


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  2. Some of my colleagues have done this, but I have not. I think it has the potential to be very useful and helpful. I'll give it a shot with my students as a way of reviewing for our next exam. I talked with them today about the exam and asked them a question that Vance Ricks suggested, "What do I mean when I ask you to give an objection to an argument? Or to briefly evaluate an argument?" I realized I'd spent time in the past talking about these things, but had let it slip some in the present. I like the idea of not just talking about it, but also having them engage in an exercise like this to learn and practice the skills associated with metacognition.

  3. I really like this idea! Though, I think my worry about applying it to my course is that I often assign the reading responses to be due on the day that we discuss the reading so that they get a first pass at the reading without my help and, also, so that they do the reading for the class. This might conflict with those aims. But I think I might incorporate this for some assignments. I like the idea of having them reflect on their learning goals.


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